He’s repeatedly used “slow” and “small” to describe his team – as he does pretty much every year. He’s called them “nice kids” and he’s even referred to them as “pound puppies” and “under puppies.” But there is one term legendary coach Bob Ames hasn’t used this year, at least in public, to describe his Meridian football team: “state finalists.”
“I don’t think they ever thought about it,” Ames said, “and I know we haven’t talked about it with them.”
Well, Bob, it’s time to have that talk.
Meridian earned the right to play on the first weekend in December for the sixth time in school history and the first time since 2006 with an impressive 34-14 victory over La Center in the state semifinals Saturday at Civic Stadium.
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So now that they are forced to talk about it, how’s the team going to handle it?
“I guess we’ll find out tonight,” Ames said.
Senior Baker Otter knows what to expect.
“A lot of celebrating,” Otter said. “I don’t think anybody else thought we’d be here, but we knew we had it in us.”
The celebration will be short lived, of course, as there’s still some business at hand – the Trojans will face top-ranked and two-time defending state champion Royal, which beat Newport 35-7 in the other semifinal Saturday. The two 13-0 teams will face off at 1 p.m. Saturday at the Tacoma Dome.
Meridian got there by once again relying on a defense that has proved to be quite stingy and often opportunistic since the calendar flipped to November.
Saturday was definitely the biggest challenge the Trojans have faced so far.
La Center entered with enough big bodies to tilt the Civic Stadium turf toward the visiting stands and left little doubt that it wanted to utilize that size advantage by running the ball down the smaller Trojans’ throat. The Wildcats took the opening kickoff and marched 74 yards in 15 plays – 11 of which ended up in the belly of running back Wyatt Dodson, who bulldozed his way to 41 yards and the opening score from 3 yards out.
Though they knew what was coming, Meridian seemed stunned.
“We knew we had more left in us,” Otter said. “That wasn’t us. I think it woke us up.”
Meridian didn’t make any major adjustments to its scheme after that drive, but it did need to change what it was doing.
“First drive we weren’t doing our jobs,” Otter said. “We talked about it afterward and just did what our coaches wanted us to do. First drive we weren’t. We just needed to do our jobs.”
And that’s exactly what the Trojans did, and the results were quite impressive. For the rest of the first half, La Center managed just 19 yards rushing on 19 carries.
And most importantly, Meridian started generating turnovers.
The most crucial of which came on La Center’s next possession, when Bryce Vandenhaak stepped in front of Hayden Williamson’s pass and returned it to the Meridian 44.
“That was huge,” Otter said. “It was a big momentum switch.”
It didn’t take Simon Burkett and the Trojans offense long to cash in, as Burkett found Lukas Hemenway running free in the La Center secondary and hit him for a 56-yard score to tie the game up.
La Center’s next drive ended with the first of three Trojans fumble recoveries. Meridian turned this one into Cole Roberts’ 3-yard TD run and its first lead of the game.
Burkett would add an 11-yard touchdown run to make the halftime score 20-7, before connecting with Kevin Galiano on 36- and 76-yard TD throws in the fourth quarter to put Meridian up 34-7.
In addition to the three passing TDs and one rushing, Burkett finished with 269 yards passing and 41 rushing.
La Center, meanwhile, managed 275 yards of total offense, a good chunk of which came after the game had already been decided. Dodson finished with 79 yards on 26 carries.
“That was remarkable, wasn’t it?” Ames said. “Our guys just did their jobs.”
By doing so, Meridian earned a chance to play for the fourth state title in program history.
“I don’t think many people expected us to be here,” Otter said. “We expected to be here, but I don’t think anyone in the county did. We’re not a great big team, we’re not an exceptionally fast team, but we’ve got a lot of heart.”
Saturday night, that was much more important than the sizes listed on a roster.
“We played as a team, and we’re going to the dome as a team,” Taylor Snook said.